Old and New Environmental Technology in France

My wife and I went back to a favourite haunt this week, to discover that everything changes, but it all remains the same.

The venue is in the hills 20 kilometres north of the walled city of Carcassonne, near the where the Spanish/French Border meets the Mediterranean. We discovered La Chateau Villatade winery there, a big old-style farm house built around a central courtyard. They rent out rooms on a weekly rate to help pay the bills. And they have great wine.

How we found them was just luck; It was late on a rainy November night, we had just come across the Spanish border and we couldn’t find a hotel. Someone told us, “I have a friend who rents rooms. I’ll call her.” So we threw ourselves into the hands of fate and the charity of strangers, and up over the winding mountain roads we drove, only to find a little cottage with a roaring fire on the hearth and a bottle of wine on the table. Sophie and Denis, the owners, were lovely people who spoke better English than I spoke French (not a difficult accomplishment), and they welcomed us into their family.

We went back a couple of years later, and were somewhat disappointed to find the view from our rustic retreat spoiled by a row of huge windmills on the hilltop to the west. However, the next time we visited, the vanes weren’t turning, and one was broken off. We hiked up to check it out. The broken vane was lying in the brush, split open. It was built exactly like an old airplane wing, with plywood ribs covered by fiberglass. We were told later that the original wind generators all had two-bladed props like airplanes, and they tended to vibrate themselves to pieces in a strong wind.

A couple of years later we went back; the towers were still there, but the blades were all taken off. When my son and daughter-in-law got married at Villatade in 2013, the towers were gone, and the site was bare gravel.

Now we return, ten years later. New owners have taken over, but the lady’s name is also Sophie, and both she and her husband are really sweet people, too. I couldn’t wait to take our travelling friend, Anne, hiking in the woods. I was telling her about a little stone igloo-shaped shelter up there that the shepherds used to sleep in.

We got to the top of the ridge, and I was just saying, “Now, if you keep any eye open to the left, you’ll see the shelter in the bush along here somewhere…” when I looked to the right.

The whole top of the hill is sheathed in solar panels. Obviously, the owners of the property weren’t the sort to give up. The Hérault region has plenty of wind, but it has plenty of sun, too.

And then I looked closer. There, up along the edge of the array, there was a notch in the panels. And right in the middle of the bare spot was the shepherds’ shelter.

One thing I like about the French; they’re at the forefront of technology, but they take time to pay tribute to the ancient use of the environment that has always supported them.

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